Ilyas' Work Of Art.
And it was completely in Arabic.
I didn't understand a single word. But I was transfixed. When they rehearsed the song again, I looked over at the composer, Ilyas Iliya, standing on my left in the aisle. Though the song is sung completely a cappella and consists of long lines of harmony, tightly twisted together (in minor twos) leaping under and over each other in unexpected dashes and turns, he stood there, rigidly tapping out a steady 4/4 pace with his foot.
Part of the promotional appeal of this piece was that it was the first time a gay men's chorus has performed a song in Arabic. Ilyas Iliya is from Lebanon. He is a modest, charming man with deeply kind eyes.
His story is that when he was young, his family immigrated to America. Dallas. He saw the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus there and it changed him to see men like him, freely out (and talented!).
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus was the first gay chorus in the world. It was a brave act back then because you could lose your job or your family by being out. In fact, tonight, the chorus was given a special award, this being their 30th anniversary. But the point is that back then, as the chorus traveled, they became the first "out" persons others would ever meet.
"Others" like Ilyas, a gay man in a Lebanese family living in Dallas.
It's only fitting that this song, Safeer el-Layl (Ambassador of the Night), would be world premiered this night because it's a perfect tribute to the legacy of the chorus itself. It was born from this chorus, and not just because they commissioned it this evening. This song is a result of those early men, many of whom have died from AIDS, going out bravely into the world.
And, best of all, it's a work of art. It's a complex, amazing, stunning work of art.
Sitting in front of me at the rehearsal was the great conductor and maestro, Vance George. When the song ended, I let out some kind of whoop. I don't even remember. I was so transported out of myself. I was having a major eargasm. He turned around with a wink in his eye and said, of the song, "That's a lot harder than it sounds."
I said, "That song doesn't sound remotely easy."
And I knew it wasn't.
But what I did know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was that I had heard the kind of Art that touches the heart, translates across culture and language, and digs into your heart as strongly as it digs into your head.
The question, of course, is that composers and artists tend to like lots of things that the general public totally hates. Was I just hearing something meant only for the ears of other writers or artists or intellectuals (and other full of shit people like myself) or could it be more?
The night comes (which I will go into, at length in another blog entry), Dr. McGuire introduces Ilya to the audience. He tells his story.
The piece starts. The sounds of the words are wide and rich, but also harsh on the edges sometimes, and caressing at others. And the harmonies! It's minimalism and yet there's more. I told him later that I thought the score probably looked like a wadded up rubber band, with all the notes twisted around each other. (He laughed.)
The chorus, divided into four groups, delicately and with confidence, masterfully handled the difficult language and mind-bending harmonies, producing a hypnotic, sonorous tone that mesmerized, bouncing back and forth from all sides as each group traded riffs and chants, doubling back on top of each other in layer upon layer of glorious sound.
Sitting next to me was one of the writers of the great and legendary "Naked Man." Librettist Philip Littel. This was our first meeting, but he, composer David Conte, and myself were all seated together and were having a blast.
I said to him, "Have you heard this?"
He said he didn't think so.
I told him how good I thought it was. He said, "Oh, is this the Arabic song?"
"So it's good?"
After the song started, I looked over at him and he had his eyes closed, head pointed up and he was in total heaven.
The piece ends on this long, tranquil chord, held and held, then released. Complete peace settled over the magnificent 2500 seat Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.
Kathleen lowered her baton.
The place erupted into the kind of instantaneous standing ovation most writers only dream of. Rapturous, thunderous waves of applause rolling up to the chorus and then back out to Ilyas Iliya sitting halfway back with his family.
They make him stand. His brothers are slapping him.
The ovation continues. Now the chorus has joined in. People are shouting out loud. I was so happy!
I felt myself melt in absolute, pure love for this special man.
And history was made tonight by Ilyas Iliya, Dr. Kathleen McGuire and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.
But then this chorus is used to making history, aren't they?